BAGHDAD - Al-Qaeda militants commandeered Iraqi army vehicles and then attacked U.S.-backed Sunni fighters in south Baghdad during a fierce gun battle that left 18 people dead yesterday, police and local Sunnis said.
Later yesterday, mortars or rockets slammed into the U.S.-protected Green Zone - dramatizing warnings by senior American commanders that extremists still pose a threat to Iraq's fragile security despite the downturn in violence.
The gun battle began before dawn when al-Qaeda militants killed three Iraqi soldiers and seized two Humvees in the rural area of Hawr Rijab on the southern rim of the capital, according to a police report.
Militants then drove the Humvees to the nearby headquarters of the local "awakening council" - Sunnis who have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq. The assailants opened fire on the headquarters with rifles and machine guns from the Humvees, the report said.
U.S. helicopters joined the fight, blasting a van which was transporting a machine gun and mortar tube, the American military said. An F-16 jet dropped a 500-pound bomb and destroyed the vehicle as al-Qaeda broke off the attack, the U.S. said, adding that two insurgents were killed.
The dead included eight members of the U.S.-backed group and seven al-Qaeda suspects in addition to the three Iraqi soldiers, according to police and local Sunni leaders.
Iraqi police and soldiers formed a protective cordon around wailing women and children as they loaded wooden coffins onto cars for the funeral processions of those killed.
Shortly before sunset, a series of rockets or mortars crashed into the Green Zone, sending plumes of smoke into the sky as the sounds of the detonations reverberated through the city.
The attack, the biggest against the Green Zone in weeks, occurred as many Americans were marking the Thanksgiving holiday. Loudspeakers in the Green Zone warned people to "duck and cover."Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. spokesman, said there were no fatalities but some people were wounded.
Northeast of the capital, Iraqi security forces killed 19 al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters during a gunfight in a mixed Shiite-Sunni village outside Baqouba, police said. They said two civilians were killed and two others were wounded in the crossfire.
In statements posted yesterday on Islamist Web sites, an al-Qaeda front group, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on U.S.-backed "awakening" groups around the Iraqi capital.
One statement also claimed responsibility for downing a coalition helicopter Tuesday. Two soldiers were killed and a dozen were injured.